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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Finding endangered species at the Henry Vilas Zoo
Observing animals in and out of their natural surroundings in Madison
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Floriane, future Asian tapir conservationist, observes from the fence at the Henry Vilas Zoo.

Going out in public is fabulously weird. On a recent trip to Henry Vilas Zoo, as I passed by a black swan I overheard a father agree with his son, "Yes, birds are very tasty." Somehow this didn't seem like a zoo-friendly observation, but the truth is the truth: Birds are tasty. And this fowl comment did make an important point -- the kid made a real connection between animals and his surroundings.

I might seem cynical (I am), but I'm a bit dubious of that fad called "children." Not only do my friends and peers seem to be in a constant state of pregnancy, but even the new women's fashions seem to beg for swollen bellies. The problem I have is that for every well-adjusted child I encounter, there are five more running around screaming their materialistic rants. The plop-him/her-in-front-of-the-TV mentality has made some folks regard childbearing as akin to stamp collecting.

While some prissy kid begged her mother to go to the zoo's gift shop and another boy buried his head in a Gameboy, I watched the harbor seals. The last time I witnessed seals was when I stepped into their natural habitat in the Indian Ocean. I am a lucky person, I thought. Lucky to have witnessed these creatures in nature; lucky enough to acknowledge my luck.

For those who do not have such opportunities, Henry Villas Zoo gives anyone a chance -- free of charge -- to be humbled by Mother Nature's children.

Do I necessarily agree with housing animals in confined places? Not really. I personally thought the Galapagos turtles' quarters were too cramped, and I was equally put off by the Baghdad-style rhino pen.

However, if kids only learned about nature via the digital world, they would not understand reality. Seals and the latest cartoon would be equal. Perhaps by having zoos, we save animals in the wild by inspiring people to care for something that they'd otherwise lose sight of with the next flip of the channel.

I am of the digital generation, but I remember when Pluto was a planet, and when iPods, DVDs and cellphones were nonexistent. I remember when fun was something made from dirt and sweat.

I expected to go to the zoo and ogle animals. Instead, I judged my own kind. The most remarkable thing I witnessed was not the capybaras or flamingos; it was Floriane, a little girl perched on her father's knee looking at the Asian tapirs. She squealed with glee when they walked, looked her way with their silly noses, or went swimming in their pond. She didn't care about the missing giraffes, the closed ride or the plush toys at the gift shop.

The wildest thing in the zoo that day was not the snakes and frogs, it was Floriane.

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